A dangerous job: offshore and at height

Working at height, while often necessary in offshore industries – whether in oil, gas, wind or other energy sectors, can pose a significant safety risk, particularly as the work is often carried out in extreme weather conditions and in remote areas.

Falls from height are a leading cause of injury among offshore workers. According to the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) latest figures, they also led to two deaths between 2011 and 2016.

Under the Work at Height Regulations 2005, employers must protect employees by ensuring all projects are properly planned and supervised, and are carried out by competent people, supplied with the appropriate equipment.

In any industry, when seeking to address potential working at height hazards, employers should follow an established hierarchy of controls.

The initial step in this hierarchy is to try to avoid the risk altogether, by using design or engineering solutions to eliminate the need for working at height in the first place.

Within offshore industries, certain measures can be introduced to avoid the need for some climbing. For example, drones can be used for some inspections.

However, for much of the time this will not be sufficient, particularly where maintenance or repair work is needed. Generally, eliminating the need for working at height will be impracticable in offshore industries, because of the nature of the infrastructure itself.

In these cases, the next step should be to consider ways of preventing the person who will be working at height from falling.

The first way of doing this is by implementing fall prevention measures, or what HSE calls ‘collective’ measures, such as guardrails and toe boards. Guardrails must meet the required standards for the situation at hand. The second method of prevention involves using personal fall prevention equipment (PFPE).

This includes items such as restraint lanyards, which are designed to prevent the user from being able to manoeuvre in any area where there is a risk of falling. It also includes work positioning lanyards, which, when used in conjunction with a harness with a belt, allow the user to work securely and comfortably while keeping both hands free.

Only when prevention has been ruled out as an option should employers look at mitigation measures, such as personal fall arrest equipment, which is designed to limit the impact of any fall.

These systems typically comprise a full-body harness with a shock-absorbing lanyard or retractable lifeline, an anchor point and a means of rescue.

PFPE used in the oil and gas industries has to withstand grease and grime, as well as contact with corrosive and abrasive materials. It also needs to be protected from volatile environments.

Stringent inspection and maintenance regimes for PFPE are as important for worker safety as choosing the right system. Equipment should be checked before every use, preferably by the worker using it.

Materials can degrade over time, regardless of use. However, a common cause of weakening is abrasion or damage by cuts. Any equipment showing signs of this type of wear should be scrapped, as should equipment that has suffered a high shock load.

In the event of an arrested fall, retrieval equipment is also needed. Some of this equipment is designed to enable self-rescue, while other options allow for rescue by a co-worker or a rescue team. Devices include tripods, davit arms, winches and comprehensive rescue systems.

Another key area to consider is training, which should be tailored to workers’ needs, as no two areas of work are identical.

For example, within offshore industries such as oil and gas there are often added complications, such as working in a confined space. Additional risks include dirty and slippery conditions, and an environment where there is a great deal of activity, often with heavy loads being moved and lifted.

Under the Work at Height Regulations, employers must ensure that everyone involved in working at height is competent, or, if being trained, is supervised by a competent person. This includes competency in organisation, planning, supervision and the supply and maintenance of equipment.

The regulations also stipulate that where other precautions do not entirely eliminate the risk of a fall occurring, those who will be working at height must be properly trained in how to avoid falling, and how to avoid or minimise injury to themselves should they fall.

A range of height safety training courses exist for different industries and working environments.

Stephen Morris is fall protection technical specialist at 3M